Shit & capitalism – anything in common?

I first encountered the concept of Faecal Standard Money from two members of the Science Walden Centre based in South Korea. The ramifications of their project have fascinated me ever since in relation to our capitalistic mindset here in the UK. As a psychologist, I like it because it’s an example of how doing affects thinking. It doesn’t matter if the experiment doesn’t necessarily scale. The doing experiment itself will inform our thinking.

The project was developed by a combination of artists and scientists at Science Walden. Jaeweon Cho, Director of the Science Walden Centre, dreamed of a scientific method of making odourless powders from our faeces, and replacing money with that powder as an alternative to our current system—i.e., “faeces standard money (FSM).” In reality, the current project consists of a waterless toilet system that converts human waste into fertilizers and biofuel which can then be sold (in principle) to make money.

(This is not total fantasy. A U.N. report estimates that globally, human waste converted to fuel could have a value of about $9.5 billion. The amount of waste produced just by the 1 billion people with no sanitation facilities could be worth up to $376 million in methane production alone — enough to power 10 to 18 million households. The compressed, solid residue would also produce the equivalent of up to 8.5 million tons of charcoal for industrial use.)

Back to Cho’s team who developed a smartphone app for the Centre’s toilet users which tracks the weight of their treated waste and assigns a monetary value to it. Depositors (if that’s the right term) can spend their ‘money’ on a set of products within the centre. The idea is to get people to think differently about their own waste, its potential ecological value and the wider relationship between money and value. Apparently, a person averages a faecal output of 400 grams/day or 145kg/year.

For a while, my artist colleagues and I have been exploring the disconnection between value and money. How can we unravel and rework a capitalism which is based on endless economic growth dependent on us all consuming ever more material stuff which damages our finite planet and does not make us any happier? And the vast wealth generated from all our material consumption flows to a tiny minority of the population who generally don’t invest it back into society but use it to grow their own personal wealth.

So, here are the things which fascinate me about faecal waste (a.k.a shit).

It’s a taboo topic (as is personal wealth incidentally) but we all produce it every day. So, if it was actually worth something as a consequence of ecological recycling then every one one of us has a means (albeit tiny) of making a societal contribution. We each have monetary value!

And, we would be making money out of contributing something into the ecological system rather than consuming something from it as is our required role in today’s economic structure.

Ideally, we need to excrete our waste matter every day. If we don’t, we get constipated because we are holding onto something which our body no longer needs and will ultimately cause pain and can be fatal. How different life would be if money was like that, i.e. fine when we used it but increasingly uncomfortable for us to hold onto if we had no immediate need for it. When we have some, we should spend it for something needed today while it’s fresh and before “it goes off” . Interestingly, Freud even suggested a link between money and a toddler learning to control their bowels – when to hold onto faeces and, most critically, when to let go. He suggested that people who never learned to let go were the kind of adults who hoarded money rather than spend it. Who knows with Freud, but it’s an interesting thought.

In a similar vein, the Old Testament relates the story of the Israelites in the desert where God rained down manna (a snow like material) for them to eat every morning but the manna went off if not eaten immediately. If you tried to stock pile it for another day then it “bred worms and stank“.

In today’s society, the poorest live from day to day while the richest have far more money stored away than they could possibly ever spend today on their own needs or pleasure however hard they tried. Arguably, this money no longer has functional value if there aren’t enough things they could possibly spend it on on any day. If they choose to keep storing it and adding to it (because wealth in our system accrues wealth), they will certainly become bloated and may ultimately suffer from a dangerous form of constipation. Ouch.

Read more about Science Walden’s projects here.


About Alison Kidd

Research Psychologist
This entry was posted in Psychology, socially engaged art, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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